The last elephants

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An old elephant waits, incomplete, in the shade of a big tamarind tree outside Yok Don National Park.

The giant beast's two tusks have been cut off by its owner to dissuade poachers from killing it. But that didn't stop them from cutting off the hairy tip of its tail"”a single strand can sell for between US$10-15 at tourist shops throughout Dak Lak Province.

Soon tourists will climb on its back for a ride around the park and nearby Lak Lake.

Despite its pitiful state, this elephant can be considered among the luckiest of its kind in Vietnam's Central Highlands"”where they were once too numerous to count.

In January, poachers in Don Village stabbed an elephant named Pak Cu to death.

The thin herds belonging to the region's traditional mahouts (elephant keepers) are aging out. Many fear that, soon, this animal and the culture that relied upon it will simply disappear.

The edge of extinction

Ama Kong, 101, says he's tamed 298 wild elephants during his life using only ropes and patience.

He is known, internationally, as a master mahout.

The H'mong legend, who boasts four wives, said he tamed his first elephant when he was just 13 years old. He made his career taming and training the animals for manual labor.

At one time, his home town of Don Village shared an equally outsized reputation throughout the region as an epicenter of traditional elephant wranglers. Today, a scant 10 domesticated elephants remain here, where they are harried by poachers and vanishing forests.

Just twenty years ago, Kong says that hundreds of elephants could be found wandering in and around the village area.

"In the past, elephants could be seen everywhere, even along the forest's edge," Kong said. "Today it's impossible to find one even deep in the woods. In addition, some owners are selling domesticated elephants"”even nursing calves"”which is against the law."

The village's former reputation as a destination for famed elephant trainers is rapidly waning.

 The situation is even worse in Gia Lai Province's Chu Mo Ward, yet another Highlands hub for elephants.

In Pleipa Kdranh Village, Ksor Cham, 70, recalled a time when the elephants in the area were too numerous to count.  He himself owned three males.

Today, Cham's 40-year old elephant, Yah Tao, is the last pachyderm in town. Many more such villages, which once comprised the outlying border of the animal's range in Vietnam, are reporting a total population loss.

Elephant populations all over Asia have suffered greatly from deforestation, habitat loss, and poaching.

The sharp decline of the animal's numbers in Laos and Vietnam began during the indiscriminate bombing campaigns waged by American forces during the Vietnam War.

The widespread use of chemical defoliants also denied the creatures crucial grazing areas and sources of food.

Landmines and unexploded ordnance have continued to plague their numbers.

Today, poachers, illegal loggers and habitat loss continue to harry the dwindling population in the wild.

In 1990 between 1,500 and 2,000 elephants occupied the forest.

During the most recent count, their numbers were estimated to be around 80, of which 40 inhabit in the Central Highlands.

This year, local newspapers reported violent clashes between elephants and farmers as well as three drowned elephants during last year's flooding.

Domestic elephants have fared no better.

In 1980, their numbers were listed around 600.

In 2006, a study commissioned by the International Zoo Yearbook recorded just 165. Experts attribute the decline to economic and environmental changes.

These days, mahouts are less inclined to take their female elephants away from work for breeding purposes.  The rising cost of care has coincided with rising demand for domesticated elephants in Laos and Cambodia.  What's more, the government has outlawed wild captures.

Holy creature

The remaining mahouts aren't too worried, these days, about what will become of their traditional trade. Instead, they fret about the future of the animals they consider members of their families and communities.

Like most of the ethnic minority residents of this rural region, Cham considers the creatures sacred.

"To Central Highlands residents, the elephant doesn't just play a crucial role in transportation and construction," he said. "It also serves as a symbol of wealth and prestige for the owner. Beyond its role as a status symbol, elephants are considered holy creatures."

Since he tamed Yah Tao in 1992, the old handler has turned down myriad offers for the creature"”the latest offer being a $50,000 Hyundai Santa Fe.

Every time the elephant helps build a house, the villagers hold a feast (featuring a spread for both animal and residents) to express gratitude for a job well done.

When a new elephant has been fully tamed, the village gathers to name the animal and welcome it as an official member of the community. The owner is expected to put out a feast for the entire village at this time, as well.

When the elephant dies, its owner must organize yet another gathering. The body is buried deep in the forest and the gravesite officially becomes hallowed ground.

These days, however, even the dead elephants do not have a chance to rest in peace.

Usually, before the end of their first night in the ground, poachers have stripped and ravaged the corpse for its valuable items. Many in Vietnam believe that a single tail hair has the power to bring good luck and stave off disease. Bones and tusks are carved and sold as jewelry.

In the last two years, Cham has been too weak to accompany his elephant into the forest. His son-in-law can sometimes spend months foraging with the creature for food and medicinal herbs.

At times, Cham says he simply cannot help himself and wanders into the woods to look after his aging friend.

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